The Masks We Wear: Strength and vulnerability in the age of Covid-19

Face Mask

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Face Mask
Photo by Dimitri Karastelev on Unsplash

Surgical masks are everywhere and nowhere. We wear them when we go out, we see them on almost everyone’s faces, we read articles about how stores (and even some hospitals) have run out of them. There is now a burgeoning cottage industry of make-your-own surgical mask tutorials, as well as an on-going and vociferous debate as to whether they are effective or not. They have become an unofficial symbol of this pandemic. Which in turn is uncovering so much about ourselves, our lives, and our societies.

Even before the crisis, surgical masks were common in Japan, as well as many other Asian countries. It wasn’t at all shocking to see people on the train or on the street wearing them. Convenience store workers and those in the service sector seemed to wear them with more frequency. They were part of everyday life for the most part. 

People not wanting to get sick, people not wanting get others sick, cultural norms surrounding cleanliness–all of these may perhaps be given as valid reasons, although I would feel uncomfortable ascribing one definitive explanation. The reaction to surgical masks was always interesting and puzzling to me personally. Why? Because it stokes unnecessary fear and panic? Or because it hides the face, and is therefore seen to veil the identity of the wearer?

Masks seem to represent hiding our vulnerabilities, which in some cultures, where the face marks the entry point of identity and the public self, may be considered cowardly or invoking mistrust. But that way of thinking ignores the ways in which our faces, and our public selves in general, are often used as masks. Every morning we “put on our faces” (as my mother used to say) or “wrap ourselves in ourselves” (as the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector wrote) in order to walk out the door and enter society. We sometimes use our faces to wall off the emotions that we really feel. We pretend to others that we know what is going on and that we are in control: fake it till you make it. 

For the past few years Nazobako, and other escape game rooms, were a place where people could to some extent remove these masks. By entering an unfamiliar place, and by doing unfamiliar things, we found that many players let their guards down and let others in. Or they played with new masks and new roles that they took with them back into their lives. Opening ourselves up to vulnerability, letting the veil fall and uncovering our inner selves can sometimes lead to more growth. 

I think we are all feeling some of this “uncovering” as we come to terms with ever-changing circumstances. We are dealing with major changes in our relationships and work lives, with radical shifts in how we move about in our daily lives and on this planet. This is ripping down the flimsy barriers between work and personal life and forcing an infusion of the two now that many of us work from home. We don’t have to dress up all the time anymore, and our colleagues are getting a closer look at who we are. Our spaces have been confined and our freedoms delimited to the point where we have to face ourselves in the mirror, without our masks. 

In this Covid-19 epidemic, perhaps the relationship between mask and weakness/ vulnerability, between inner and outer self, is being challenged. Masks are now associated with taking things a little more seriously. I wear a mask whenever I go out, not only because I think it will prevent me from getting infected, but because it may prevent others from getting infected by me. I have to take responsibility, both by staying home and by wearing a mask if I go out. In this light the mask is a sign of seriousness, of consideration for others, of solidarity and unity with the rest of the world and how scientists are treating this epidemic. 

We’re also being confronted with realities that we can’t smile away, that we can’t push behind a determined face. During this time I think it’s good and healthy to be honest about our pain and grief, and to be upfront with ourselves about our anxiety, emotions, and mental health. As communities and societies too, we should no longer ignore issues like massive inequality and lack of access to health care– which are now exacerbating the already serious threat from the virus. We can’t just cover things up like we used to, with a smile, and move on. We will either have to try to fix them now, or deal with the consequences later on.

The Japanese began wearing surgical masks during the Spanish Flu around a century ago– another pandemic that ripped through the world with disregard for nationality, race, ethnicity, or bank balance. Perhaps the world will start wearing them after this epidemic. Maybe surgical masks will take on a new meaning of strength, as they come to be associated with heroic, beleaguered health workers around the world:our human will to help each other.

As we head into the weekend, maybe we can reflect on the masks in our life that we have worn. Which ones do we need to keep and which ones can we discard now that this crisis has upended so much? How can we remain strong while admitting that we are vulnerable (maybe this strength/vulnerability binary is masking something else instead)? And in what ways can we break through the walls that are keeping us apart in order to help those in need?

As always, stay safe, stay inside (if you can), stay strong, and stay connected.

I will be taking a break over the weekend, but these posts will continue up on Monday.

With Love,

Lee and the team at Nazobako/Invite Japan

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